How do you describe a big, contradictory, many-faceted place like the United States of America? That is what Real American, the juried group show on view from now until August 13 at the Ann Arbor Art Center aims to do. What you see in this country right now depends on where you are standing and the juror, eminent Ann Arbor-based photojournalist Peter Baker, treats us to his personal view of not just one America but several.
The America that gets the most attention in this sprawling exhibit is loud, materialistic, individualistic, restless and consumerist. Many of the best works in this vein are photographs, perhaps reflecting Mr. Baker’s special area of expertise. Errol Daniel’s photograph of Florian Ayana Fauna shows a youth in surroundings meant to depict her (his?) highly idiosyncratic values. But this young Goth doesn’t seem happy about it. Bored young men pose with energy drinks in front of an unlovely supermarket in Monster Energy, Tulsa, a large scale photograph by Dan Farnum. Corporate logos, junk food and cars are the stuff of worship in Contemporary Totem by Jonathan Frey.
America as the land of the restless gets some attention in Jaye Schlesinger’s beautifully painted gouaches. In Too Much Fun she captures the backside of a family car (no doubt a gas guzzler), covered in leisure equipment on a mission to have fun at all costs.
Perhaps the most perfect embodiment of this view of America as the sum of its material parts is Shawn Quinlan’s The New American Heritage, which is also the winner of the Best in Show Award. This is an outrageously garish but well crafted and carefully composed quilt that combines a classic American artform with pop imagery, cooking up a chaotic, patriotic, consumerist stew. A melancholy Bozo the Clown towers over the diminutive figures of George Washington, Uncle Sam and Abraham Lincoln surrounded by well-known symbols of the nation. All hell seems to be breaking loose below.
And could any exhibit about America right now not include the current spokesman for America First, Donald Trump? John Posa delivers a hilarious painterly take-down of the Donald, his rough and flaky face topped by a furry coiffure, part toupee, part coonskin cap. In a similar satirical vein, Barbara Melnik Carson’s Armed American is a stern Lady Liberty who stands on guard, no longer welcoming but fully locked and loaded, ready to repel the invading hordes.
There is another America to be seen in Real American, lurking under the surface and often drowned out by the craziness and comedy of the dominant theme. This America is a quieter land of big spaces and solitude. Seder Burns’ photo RV Camped for the Night on BLM Land in CO. is a lyrical picture of the unspoiled land that belongs to every American, claimed for a night by one traveler.
In this America, citizens love their country, sincerely if not uncritically. In Conduct Becoming #24 , C.J. Breil shows a veteran, quietly heroic and proud of his and his family’s service in a prosaic American setting. In the large photo portrait Mitchelene Big Man, Crow Indian/Iraq Veteran by Melissa Lynn, a woman embraces her dual American identity, wearing her Native American regalia while holding an American flag. And Tina Blondell has painted Antimony as Nubia, in which a young African American woman presents herself as a confident, larger-than-life superhero.
A ghostly American flag made of wire and string (Flag by Dietmar Krumrey) seems to say that America is more than its material parts, not just a place but an idea. The flag is again a stand-in for the nation in American Odyssey by Jim Aho, worn and damaged and bullet pocked, but still recognizable.
It’s tempting to pick one America or the other. Is it a nation defined by its materialism, its corporate logos, its crazy politics? Or is it a spacious spiritual home for ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all? Of course, this is a false distinction, or to put it another way, two sides of the same American silver dollar. The same values that favor self expression also favor isolation and alienation. The unbridled pursuit of prosperity can create a nightmarish culture where everything is monetized. The flip side of patriotism can be ugly bigotry.
Being American requires constant balancing and rebalancing, defining and re-defining, in real time, of our shared values: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Real American is part of that ongoing conversation.
For more about Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery, go here.
Artists in Real American: Jim Aho (Huntington Woods, MI), Mark Bleshinski (Bay City, MI),Tina Blondell (Minneapolis, MN), C.J. Breil (Ann Arbor, MI), Sarah Buddendeck (Ann Arbor, MI), Seder Burns (Ann Arbor, MI), Barbara Melnik Carson (Ann Arbor, MI), Vanessa Compton (Greensboro, VT), Errol Daniels (East Amherst, NY), Keith Downie (Muskegon, MI), Dan Farnum (Tulsa, OK), Kathie Foley-Meyer (Los Angeles, CA), Heather Freeman (Charlotte, NC), Jonathan Frey (Lewisburg, PA), David Gardner (San Francisco, CA), Sarah Hahn (Cleveland, OH), Amber Harrison (Ann Arbor, MI), Christian Helser (Grand Rapids, MI), Dietmar Krumrey (Clare, MI), Melissa Lynn (Denver, CO), Astrid Muller-Karger (Ann Arbor, MI), I.B. Murphy (Marine on St. Croix, MN), John Posa (Ann Arbor, MI), Shawn Quinlan (Pittsburgh, PA), Jim Rehlin (Ann Arbor, MI), Jaye Schlesinger (Ann Arbor, MI), Geoffrey Stein (New York, NY), Marilynn Thomas (Warren, MI), Seth Trent (Chandler, AZ), Tamara Wasserman (Chicago, IL), Timothy Wells (Ypsilanti, MI), Chad Yenney (Wenatchee, WA), Micah Zavacky (Dayton, OH)